Hyponik

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Back In The Day: Rollo Jackson

After talking to visual artists, sleeve designers and illustrators, the fourth installment of our Back In The Day series tackles a video director with rave pedigree. 

Going to school in Central London during the mid-90’s, Rollo Jackson-like countless others at time, became enamored with the visceral sounds of Jungle emanating from car stereos and dingy warehouse parties. Retaining this fascination with pirate radio alongside a growing passion for film, Jackson eventually made inroads into directing through a job at MTV-although soon found this role came with just as many frustrations as benefits. After being met with one dead end too many, Jackson decided to call time on his days at MTV and set about independently pursuing a number of projects, including work with London’s very own Hot Chip.

Blessed with remarkable versatility, Jackson’s directorial career has seen him flit between everything from effervescent hyper reality ( check his trailer for Warp’s take over of the Tate ) to heart warmingly honest documentary (his pared down ‘Tape Crackers‘, with old mate Michael Finch). With an impressive CV that boasts collaborations with artists like Toddla T, Chase and Status and Danny Brown, and brands like Supreme, Sol and his beloved Arsenal FC, Jackson’s talents can presently be observed on a wide range of platforms, with a raft of new projects forever on the horizon. With this in mind we caught up with Rollo recently at his home in London’s historic and spectacularly bizarre Barbican complex for a chat on the music that shaped his upbringing, his early experiences in film and of course his Gunner’s title chances.

Working with Michael Finch on his Tape Crackers documentary

“We were friends at school and we shared a lot of those tape experiences together. He invested a lot more time in taping pirate radio than I did. In fact most of the tapes that I had were probably copies of his. I started buying records and decks so I think we sort of split into those two camps and between us we had it covered, with that niche of music anyway. We shared a lot of our first rave experiences together”.

Record Shopping

“80% of the records I bought would have been from Blackmarket records on D’Arblay Street in Soho. When I was at school, I would often try and sneak out at lunchtime and the closest shop I could get to was a place called Section 5 on the King’s Road. It was a complete anomaly; it was in the basement of a clothes shop. It was quite funny; it had a lot of what you would call Tech-Step Jungle at the time. A lot of really hard post-Ragga Jungle stuff. All the stuff that came out on ThirtyOne Recordings etc. I went to a lot of second hand shops as well. I started buying when I was about fifteen so I wasn’t around for the very first wave of Jungle records which I knew from pirate radio. I was playing catch-up with those right from the beginning. Places like Reckless Records on Berwick Street that had a lot more record stores than it does now. This was pre-Discogs, pre-YouTube, only by a few years but nonetheless it feels like there’s a kind of chasm there. You couldn’t listen to records in a lot of those second hand shops so often you were buying based on titles, producers or what you hoped would be the sample that was in the record.”

First exposure to soundsystem culture

“I didn’t go to clubs that much, I went to raves. The first one I went to was probably one associated with this pirate radio station called Dream FM. They used to have raves called Dream All-Nighters. The first one I went to was just south of the river (Thames), in Vauxhall or somewhere like that. After that we were bitten. I was buying records every week and picking up all the flyers for my friends and then at school we would debate all week which rave we would go to and come up with plans on how we would evade our parents.”

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Were his early inroads into film always linked music?

“I was fascinated by television from a young age and I wasn’t allowed to watch very much of it either so it was a precious sort of commodity to me. I think going to the cinema as well, you know I still find it fucking exciting, the same way you find going to a club exciting, being in a big dark place with bright lights and loud music. It’s the immersive nature of it. I can remember watching the film E.T. when I was very young and that was incredibly exciting. A lot of those Spielberg films just seemed so fantastic in the literal sense.

In my teens I got more interested in documentary and went on to become what I was most interested in doing once I left school, I wanted to work in TV and make documentaries. At university I went and lived in Madrid for a year and I think that changed the way I listened to music a lot simply because I couldn’t take my records with me. I went from being completely obsessive about Jungle to hearing new things. From the age of about 15 to 21, I completely rejected anything to do with guitars. It’s weird because a lot of the Ragga Jungle, which I was into, I almost didn’t realise where those samples had come from. When I was in Madrid though buying CDs, and just being with different people I got into Hip-Hop and Dancehall and sort of accepted that the world of music was much bigger! It sounds incredibly naive now but when you’re immersed and obsessed by one sound you don’t think about much else. After discovering and rediscovering a ton of new music I became very excited by that and simultaneously uninterested in the sound and direction Jungle was headed for post 2001.”

First projects in film

“I worked in TV sort of naively directing various shows at MTV. I thought I could make documentaries about music quite easily but well funded documentaries are incredibly hard to get made and MTV had no interest in making them. That said working in TV was very useful because it teaches you actually how to put a programme together, right down to all the boring technical requirements to actually get it on air. That discipline is useful. There’s a load of stuff I hate about it and many reasons why I left but it was a good process to go through. In terms of editing and telling a story when you’ve got to make something that’s three minutes long, not a second more or less, as ridiculous as that is, somehow that’s a useful skill to have. It was around that time I decided that I wanted to direct but not work in television. I got very frustrated working at MTV because it was sort of the dying days of it being something that people looked up at, having cultural value to a generation. I worked on a couple of more forward thinking shows where I got to choose all the music and even got to commission JME to make the title music , which was an amazing job to have. Then about a week before we submitted everything, the lawyers at MTV said, “actually you can’t use any of this music, you’ll have to use the library music for the entire series”. That was kind of the last straw for me. It was just depressing that they didn’t see the value of having real music. I guess being dismayed with a large company and realising that it’s very difficult to make things that you want to make, and not having enough weight or experience to get things commissioned, I decided that I wanted to leave and make stuff by myself.

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One of the first things that I got involved with was going on tour with Hot Chip, which was an amazing experience mainly because I genuinely loved their music. Plus it all came about through close friends so was all pretty organic. They had done their third album and were just starting to get really big, touring across North and South America. Labels still had money to throw at things like that although they had no idea what to do with it. You were dealing with EMI who were like “Yeah let’s make some videos, but what will we do with them afterwards?” I was the one who was like, “Put them on this thing called YouTube.”

Having come from a newsy TV environment, I knew how to interview people and vaguely structure a programme but I was also pretty green as well. In those early days I had a very can-do sort of attitude, which wasn’t good in terms of making money but it got shit done. I was like “I’ll learn how to edit, I’ll learn how to shoot, I’ll direct,” It started getting very cheap to get post-production software like Final Cut so that you could actually do everything yourself. Labels would give me a few thousand pounds or so and I’d do it all myself, which would be a tenth of the amount they would have to give an old-fashioned production company to make something, so I guess I hustled for work like that for a few years until I realised that actually there’s a limit to how good something can be if you don’t let anyone help you.

In the last few years it’s been nice to just be a director. I still edit a lot of stuff but working with specialist DOP’s, editors and producers and not having to carry everything myself and have someone that brings me a cup of tea, not that it’s about that!, but it allows you to focus on a vision rather than worrying about the other things. That sounds pretentious but it’s true.”

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Adapting his style for different projects

“I don’t think that the process differs that much in my head, and I would like to think that the people are coming to me because of who I am. Without wanting to sound egotistical as a director you do have to hope that people come to you for you, it’s not like getting a plumber to change your tap. You’re kind of buying into someone’s character, ability and personal taste, not just whether they can do a job. Despite the fact that commercial jobs come through agencies and a lot of the music jobs come through friends I like to think that my overall approach is the same through all of those things.”

Working on Danny Brown’s ‘Dip’ video

“That came around in quite a funny way. Fools Gold Records got in touch and said “Really like your stuff, can you go on tour with Danny for a week tomorrow?” From a practical point of view, that video was sort of different, not shooting in a studio or whatever. At first they wanted it to be a tour-based video but it became apparent that it would be more fun if it became a mixture of stuff. He’s got charisma for miles so it was great and London, Glasgow, Paris, are all pretty fun places to be when you’re filming with someone who’s getting exponentially more popular at each show. Plus it’s really nice making videos with natural performers. It lets you refine other angles.

Forthcoming projects

“I’ve just done a film for Cav Empt – a clothing label from Japan. And just did videos for Angel Haze and Chase & Status. There’s always something forthcoming. Everything overlaps.”

What makes a good director?

“Imagination and being able to tell a story is very important and being able to put your own mark on something. Strength is something else. If you’re shooting and editing everything yourself then you have total control but the more commercial a project is, when it’s not your money paying for it, then inevitably the less control you have. Compromise and other people’s demands can be a big issue, take someone like Werner Herzog who’s so bloody minded, he (appears to) always end up making the film he wants to make. I have huge respect for that. Plus for every film that’s made there’s 100 that weren’t, so just being lucky and having the knack of pulling shit off are strong attributes!”

Can Arsenal go all the way this year?

“Yeah we can definitely still do it. Basically there are a lot of games to play and sadly I don’t think our squad is strong enough. You saw it last year, when our first eleven are fit we’re really good, but with you look and Man City or Chelsea’s squads- it’s like the first thing that Mourinho said when he came to Chelsea, that he wants two world class players for every position and I don’t think we have that yet. Psychologically we’re more prepared but physically we don’t quite have the personnel.”

Words: Josh Thomas
Photography: James Clothier